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The Community Impact of Golf: Courses Help Rebirth in New Orleans and Detroit

Detroit and New Orleans, two iconic American cities, share a common bond beyond an obvious love of music. They are both rising from the ashes — one from natural disaster, the other from an economic meltdown. You’d be hard-pressed to name two better feel-good stories that show the resolve of this country than the makeover of New Orleans post‑Hurricane Katrina and Detroit after the economy (and the automobile business specifically) tanked.

For us golfers, there’s beauty in that the game hasn’t been forgotten in the recovery; in fact, you could say golf is part of the solution as both cities attempt to reinvent themselves.

In New Orleans, look no further than the story of Bayou Oaks, a public golf facility that opened in April. The Rees Jones creation took two courses damaged when Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and its City Park complex in 2005, and from the ground up built one championship course expected to be the caliber of former U.S. Open sites Torrey Pines and Bethpage Black — two municipal courses that also include Jones’s handiwork.

Bayou Oaks is 10 minutes from downtown New Orleans and the centerpiece of a $24 million City Park project.

The new layout joins Bayou Oaks North, which opened in 2008 with help from federal emergency funds, in giving City Park a 36-hole complex. A golf training center and First Tee chapter offer area youth from all backgrounds the opportunity to access a world-class facility operated by the PGA Tour.

The restoration of a golf course is just a small part of an entire neighborhood revival. A public-private partnership rebuilt the blighted St. Bernard public housing development into Columbia Parc, a mixed-income residence with other community assets centered on improved education resources. It is a civic effort that is being touted nationwide as a way to guide low-income minority kids to achievement.

Urban Revitalization

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Crescent City in August 2005, Charlie Yates, Jr., an Atlanta philanthropist and an executive at the time for Zurich Insurance Group (title sponsor of New Orleans PGA Tour stop) had visions for a rebirth. He e-mailed Mike Rodrigue, a former tournament chair of the Zurich Classic, and invited him to bring a group of civic leaders to see the urban revitalization project located next to East Lake Golf Club, the famed Atlanta club of Bobby Jones.

A few months later, Rodrigue, Gerry Barousse, Jr. and Gary Solomon toured East Lake’s surrounding community and marveled at the effort to break the cycle of poverty there spearheaded by Tom Cousins, a real estate developer who built the CNN Center.

In 1995, Cousins bought East Lake Golf Club out of receivership at a time when the crime rate at neighboring East Lake Meadows, the 650-unit public housing complex, was 18 times higher than the national average. Cousins established the East Lake Foundation and partnered with the city of Atlanta to build the Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income apartment community. A charter school, YMCA and nine-hole public golf course named after Yates’s father, Charlie Sr., soon followed. (The first class at Drew Charter School in Atlanta graduated high school this spring.)

More than $20 million in golf proceeds from East Lake in Atlanta have helped transform one of the nation’s worst public housing projects into a thriving community.

Proceeds from hosting the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship at East Lake are funneled back to the foundation for community programs. The project has become synonymous with hope and renewal.

Rodrigue grew up in the Gentilly neighborhood half a mile north of the St. Bernard projects in New Orleans and was dropped off at City Park every day and played golf. Barousse competed in his first junior golf tournament there as a young lad of 9 or 10. That also was the childhood stamping grounds of current PGA of America president Paul Levy, who recalled his father buying him an annual pass good for all 81 holes without restrictions as a Christmas gift every year.

“I played a lot,” Levy said. “I lived at City Park.”

East Lake Inspiration

Rodrigue dreamed of having a championship course at City Park, but it lacked the resources to do so. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina provided an unforeseen opportunity to re-think public housing in the city and the future of the golf complex.

Before being ruined by floodwater, the St. Bernard public housing development consisted of 1,330 units but only 920 were deemed livable. The Gentilly community originally was built in the 1940s to house GI’s returning home after World War II. It had become a crime‑infested area, where from 2001 to 2005, 684 felonies and 44 homicides were reported in the 18 city blocks within the 52‑acre site. The schools ranked 77thand 80th out of 81 elementary and middle schools in the city.

Inspired by the revitalization of the East Lake community, Rodrigue and his associates formed the Bayou District Foundation, a 501‑c3 non‑profit organization. For years, Cousins had wanted to spread the success of East Lake to other communities around the country. Now, he had his laboratory.

Efforts to expand into other communities leaped forward in March 2007, when Cousins received a letter congratulating him for his success from a TV viewer, who had seen a feature on the project on CNBC.

“I have seen a lot of attempts to do what you did. Most failed,” read the letter. “If there are any projects you are working on at East Lake or elsewhere where you could use a little financial help, just let me know. I like to back up talent.”

The letter’s author was none other than Warren Buffett, the American business magnate, billionaire and philanthropist.

Cousins, Buffett, hedge fund manager Julian Robertson, and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem attended the opening of the first 460 units in New Orleans in 2010. All told, 685 mixed‑income residential units spanning 13 city blocks were built. There’s a swimming pool, workout facility, 80‑yard playfield, and a community garden.

Columbia Parc was designed to be luxury living for people of all income levels, and it lives up to the billing. The architecture has a distinctly local flavor with dark‑metal railings and white columns in front. All units have wood vinyl flooring, stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops. Since opening in 2010, there have been two attempted felonies. It doesn’t hurt that 17 police officers live there, too.

In 2013, the Bayou District Foundation launched a “cradle to college education pipeline” with the opening of an Educare New Orleans early childhood learning center serving 168 Head Start eligible children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old. A kindergarten through eighth grade charter school is scheduled to open in 2018, two blocks from a college prep public high school.

Sixteen communities are modeling neighborhood revitalization projects after East Lake in what is now called the “Purpose Built Communities.” Another 30 are in the pipeline.

How Golf Supports Community

So far, New Orleans is the only city to feature golf as part of the urban redevelopment. Unlike East Lake, the golf course is open to the public. The BDF and City of New Orleans partnered on the $24 million golf course project in which City Park provided $15 million from FEMA and state funds and BDF raised $9 million. Through this partnership with the Park, BDF will share net income from golf operations — budgeting for $500,000 annually — that will support its community programs.

“When you play golf, you’re really funding education,” said Jacob Peters of the Bayou Development Foundation.

Golf revenue from Bayou Oaks helps support community programs.

A market feasibility study projected 24,000 rounds at Bayou Oaks as break‑even, and Barousse said the budget calls for 30,000 rounds.

“I hope other cities, other struggling courses will look at this story and say you know what, we have to do this in our city,” Levy said.

One that has taken notice is Detroit.

Niall Hay, a vice president at Penske Automotive, already deserves kudos for reviving one of the original First Tee chapters. On Nov. 13, 1997, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, President George H.W. Bush, Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, Tom Watson and Pat Bradley were among the dignitaries who announced the formation of The First Tee youth development program in Central Park in New York. Then they jetted to Detroit where the First Tee of Southeast Michigan, to be based at a nine‑hole course on Belle Island, was hailed as a trailblazer. But in 2012, the chapter ceased operation.

Hay stepped in two years ago and resurrected the chapter, christening it the First Tee of Greater Detroit. Already, 400 young people have come out to play at Palmer Park, a city‑owned facility in the heart of Detroit, and more than 9,000 have participated in First Tee’s National School Program. Having laid the foundation, Hay, 39, is organizing an effort to make golf a centerpiece of affecting the larger community surrounding Palmer Park much like New Orleans and Atlanta before it.

“It would be an East Lake story on steroids because it would impact the whole area,” said Hay, who is leading the effort as board chairman of the local First Tee chapter. “You can improve this entire corridor. It would be the perfect case study.”

With the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy behind it, Detroit is suddenly attractive to investors and innovators again. When the Little Caesar’s Arena opens in September, the Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers and Lions all will be housed within four blocks of the city’s downtown, a first for any major metropolitan city in North America.

A resurgent Grow‑the‑Game program isn’t the only positive sign for Detroit golf. The city hosted the U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills in 2016, and earlier this year the Country Club of Detroit, located 12 miles north of the city, was chosen to host the 2020 U.S. Senior Amateur, its first USGA championship since Arnold Palmer won the 1954 U.S. Amateur there. The NGF was recently contracted by Detroit to study the city’s multi-course municipal golf facilities and make recommendations for the operation going forward.

Meadowbrook Golf Club, another private club with a rich golf tradition exemplifies how golf is bouncing back. Meadowbrook was the original site of the Motor City Open, first held in 1948 (and won by Ben Hogan), as well as the 1955 PGA Championship. With their once‑vast numbers, executives and employees of carmakers helped pack Detroit‑area courses and private clubs. In 1998, when Joe Marini, Meadowbrook’s general manager, started on the job he had a waiting list of 56.

There’s an old saying that when the nation’s economy catches a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia. It’s a whimsical, yet acute, reference to the blue‑collar city’s long dependence on manufacturing automobiles. Extending the expression a step further, what’s bad for automakers is worse for golf.

As Detroit’s 100‑year grip on the American automobile industry spiraled out of control, membership rolls at area golf clubs took a beating. Initiation fees tumbled, and waiting lists existed not for equity members to join clubs, but to quit them. With the Big three automakers on the rebound, so are membership numbers. Meadowbrook, for instance, once again has a waiting list to get in.

The club closed the golf course for 19 months beginning in October 2015, and hired golf course architect Andy Staples to oversee a renovation of the Willie Park Jr.-designed course.

The revamped 12th hole at Meadowbrook, with the 13th and 4th greens in the background. Photo credit: Brian Walters Photography.

“Shutting down in the centennial year is astonishing,” said Golfweek senior writer Brad Klein, a consultant on the project.

But 77 percent of the membership supported the decision, and it has quickly paid dividends. The club reduced the price and charged social member dues while the course improvements were made. Marini said he sold 57 golf memberships last year with the promise of a golf course, and reached capacity of 325 families with golf membership. (Meadowbrook has 725 family memberships in all.)

It’s yielded reason for optimism in a city that has needed it.

Says Meadowbrook vice president Jeff Zanetti: “We’re about as healthy as we can be.”

Ted Eleftheriou
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